How to save time, stress and cash in farm office routines

Valuable hours can be lost hunting for missing paperwork or information that would be readily available with good record and bookkeeping routines.

This all costs money, and not just through lost productivity – a missed insurance renewal or rent deadline, whether incoming or outgoing, can have severe consequences.

Practical issues such as keeping track of hours worked by staff can also be streamlined to save time and improve accuracy.

See also: Farm accounting advice: How to make the process run smoothly

Recording hours worked

Gaps between time worked and the submission of timesheets can lead to mistakes, and the longer the gap, the harder it is to keep track of things accurately.

A simple and cheap way to introduce discipline to the process is a signing-in-and-out book for staff.

A paper-based system for this is cheap but neither foolproof nor practical for many businesses where different blocks of land are worked or sites are operated.

Many businesses now use time-clock technology where staff clock in and out with a mobile phone and QR code.

This not only allows the manager or business owner to see who is working but also where they are, so offers other management benefits.

This technology comes at a cost – in many cases with an escalating fee according to the number of users. For a large business with, say, 10 staff that might be about £30 a month, but those who use these systems say that the subscription could be recouped in a single day with a tighter oversight of hours.

Some users report seeing a narrowing of hours claimed on the start and end of days when they switch to such a system.

There is a safety benefit too as the farmer or manager can see when staff have left the farm, reducing the risk that an employee could still be on site at the end of the day but unaccounted for.

A cheaper option is to use a Google Maps timeline which logs location, in this case when a staff member arrives or leaves the farm.

Although only the employee will have access to this information stored on their phone, they can print it off to evidence their time sheet.

Mererid Sandbrook, office administrator at farm consultancy CARA Wales, says setting up timed texts to staff requesting their hours, whether weekly or fortnightly, can be helpful.

“It also serves as a reminder when the text comes through with the hours that wages need completing that day,’’ says Ms Sandbrook, a member of the Institute of Agricultural Secretaries and Administrators (IAgSA).

Bookkeeping routines

Putting all incoming correspondence in one place for ease of access and ready to sort might sound obvious but helps to prevent it getting mixed up with other paperwork, says agricultural secretary and administrator Sally Wood.

She has a simple system of filing invoices to be paid in an A-Z folder with dividers, keeping those paid in a separate box.

“Farmers don’t need to trawl through everything when they are paying the bills and it’s easier when completing the VAT,’’ she says.

For invoices, both Mrs Wood and Ms Sandbrook suggest setting up a dedicated email address – for instance, to help sift business correspondence.

This means that if there is a farm administrator, they don’t have to sort through personal emails, which might include private and sensitive information, to find relevant invoices. Organising emails further by using the “inbox rules” function in Outlook will direct all invoices to a dedicated inbox.

“When you come to do the books this means all the invoices will be in one place in order,’’ says Mrs Wood, a fellow of IAgSA.

Save time with ‘one-touch policy’

Have a “one touch” policy for items received by post and for delivery slips, suggests Ms Sandbrook.

“Either deal with them or put them away in their relevant category straight away so there is no time wasted going through piles of paper when you need that document in the future.’’

Colour files by year

If multiple physical files are needed each year, Ms Sandbrook recommends changing the colour for each – for example, yellow files for 2023, blue for 2024. 

“In an office with a lot of paperwork, it makes it easier to find the right section before looking for the one file you require,’’ she says.

A dedicated box for Farm Assurance paperwork can cut down on time and stress when preparing for an inspection. “A diary is good for keeping track of Farm Assurance tasks – use the calendar in the front of the diary to circle when tasks need doing, and when they have been done, mark these on the relevant date page in the diary,’’ says Mrs Wood.

Annual renewals

There are plenty of tasks, annual or otherwise, associated with running a farming business.

Google Calendar uses email notifications to let you know of changes to an event and allows pop-up and email reminders to be set up for forthcoming events, such as when an agreement or contract is due to expire.

For a manual alternative, have a list on the office wall with reminders flagged up two weeks (or alternative suitable lead time) in advance of the renewal, advises Ms Sandbrook.

Making routine tasks easier

For benchmarking, Ms Sandbrook advises setting up any accounting software or Excel sheets used for completing VAT with the headings that are needed for benchmarking and for management accounts.

“That information can be loaded while completing the VAT, and having everything allocated at the time of completing the VAT makes benchmarking later a far easier experience,’’ she says.

She also suggests keeping a small envelope file in the glove compartment of the farm vehicles dedicated to receipts, such as for fuel.

“Time won’t be wasted searching though the truck or asking staff if they have the receipts from that day you sent them to market, for instance,’’ she says.

A further tip is to have a laminated map with field and shed names on a wall, perhaps in the staff room, which new recruits can check if they are unsure of where they need to be.

Processes and record keeping

There are regular office-based processes in every farming sector, many of which must be done to comply with government regulation.

Overlooking these can land businesses with hefty penalties – for example, failing to return a passport to the British Cattle Movement Service (BCMS) when an animal has died.

In this example, taking a photograph of the dead animal’s ear tag with a phone camera is a useful way of making sure this job doesn’t get overlooked: use that image as a memory jogger for returning the passport and only delete when you are sure it has been received by BCMS. 

Time-saving tips

  • For paper invoices, a simple “paid” or “processed” ink stamp highlights at a glance what has been dealt with
  • For addresses a farm might frequently use, such as BCMS, print these on sheets of sticky labels in Word via “label to mailings”
  • Set up a signature on emails, to cut down on time for another repetitive task
  • Include field numbers and names on laminated farm maps for all staff
  • Give all team members a list of useful numbers

Time-saving and efficient ways to communicate

Advisers and administrators suggest the following to improve communication:

  • Draw up a weekly forward plan of the jobs ahead for all staff to see, whether printed on paper, circulated by email or via the farm’s Whatsapp group if it has one
  • White boards are one of the most common communication systems on farms of all types when there is a team to manage. A visual point of reference like this for daily management tasks and key targets can make the day run more smoothly and is a time-saver too if staff know what needs to be done and can act on this without the need to ask
  • Poor communication results in poor productivity – don’t avoid conversations with staff, however busy you are